Portrait of a Lady with Glasses

March 11, 2017

It is fifteen minutes before the concert starts. The crowd density around the stand that sells the program brochure is inversely proportional to the time left. There never was and never will be a queue. A young lady is in the center of this half disk. She wears very, very thick glasses.

The pair of thick glasses confesses her usual way of life immersed in the library as a musicology student. She is actually one of the contributors to the introductory texts on the program brochures. One day the philharmonic orchestra coordinator said that a person was needed to fill the post of that stand and pleaded for her help. And here she is, behind the counter.

Hundreds upon hundreds of arms stretch and point towards her; a formidable forest of lances slowly advancing. The various amounts of coins, bills in those hands are like the sharp pointed lance-tips, all too ready to charge into the lady before anyone else. It’s hard to determine at this point how much longer can the lady rightly charge everybody 20 shekels before she is unjustly charged into. Through the thick lenses, the student’s eyes struggle to identify the most imminent threat and convey it to the overburdened computation faculty for the near impossible task of figuring out how much change to return and how many brochures to hand out using which hand and giving to which direction before the next imminent threat is too late to be dealt with.

There ARE people that are not so aggressive. Me, and an old man. Aware that I came later than him, I am determined to get the brochure not before him. He held out his hand steadily until five minutes passed, during which the elbowing masses came and went and were replaced by new such masses. The old man understandably complained. The distressed lady anxiously apologized that she overlooked him and promised he would be the next to be served. While she was saying so, another hand came to occupy her whole limited vision and had to be dealt with; then another, and another. She certainly wants the old man to get his brochure, but, where is his hand? Or maybe, she thought, have I already given him? She is barely defending herself and can pursue this thought no further.

The inverse proportion relation cannot hold out forever though. At some point infinitesimally close to the starting time of the concert, people decide they’d rather forgo the brochure. Suddenly, the boiling heat vanished! She is all alone in the hall. The muffled sound of symphony playing is heard as if from another planet. She adjusted her heavy glasses that slid down her sweaty nose a bit, looked around, wondering if all the stress had been a nightmare. A gust of chilly evening wind was sent through the open door, stirring the bills inside the tin box. Oh, these are the money collected for the program brochures. These de-poled lance tips are the inerrable evidence of a real occurrence.

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New Year’s Resolution 2334*

January 3, 2017

All the debates are exhausted. I’ve made up my mind long ago. Why do people still throw the same ancient arguments in speeches and opinion pieces? It tires me. Are they not? … So I thought.

Yet sometimes, occasionally, just “poco poco poco“, I would venture beyond skimming the headlines and into the realm of actually reading it. To see if the world has changed since last time I engaged with it? To be, um, informed (not without an eye roll)? Or mere yak shaving?

This time it was that old old UN’s obsession with Israel, that old old settlement obstacle, and oh a new new number 2334. I despise important people’s speeches and I do not appreciate the significance of their subtle wording. That being said, I started this excursion  by reading the state secretary’s full text from yesterday’s newsletter. Well, to my delight it proved a waste of time because I agreed with 99% of what he said. Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié.

I held on to my view that it’s logical to claim that settlement expansion on the land which is subject to negotiation is harmful to the negotiation, thus an obstacle to peace, though I do not claim it is the only one or even the major one. And that is just a statement derived from logic. What really agonizes me is how the check posts can deprive the other side of human dignity and potentially brutalize the soldiers – more of the latter.

I am not unaware of their incitement problem. Following that line of thought, I may mention the well-known double standard that always subject Israel to harsh criticism and does not hold them accountable for horrifying deeds they did. I was once very indignant about it, too. It harms the peace process, true. But now I’m part of it. I can now somewhat relate to why some friends of Israel would do that to Israel. Because it is Israel with whom I fall in love with (sadly on my own), not the other side. As the internalization process goes, I naturally see myself whole-heartedly desire for her all the good, peace being that most precious jewel for her eternal grace. So in my eyes all I see is her, every motion she does, every word she utters, every glance she casts, every expression she shows, so much so that I don’t have any attention to spare for what the other side is doing. When she takes the course I deem leads her to danger, I cry; when they do whatever, I simply don’t care. That’s my perverted double standard.

As I just woke up from my foolish serenade, let me also put my double standard in a more comprehensible way. It’s reasonable to hold oneself to the standard of doing what one thinks is right to do, regardless of how badly the other party might behave. Since Israel is mentally internalized by me, I naturally hold her to a higher standard, because she is supposed to be that positive, progressive force.

The main objective of this post is not to document my long held belief regarding the two-state solution, though it’s worth documenting for my future reference. The point is, as my blog name indicates, a surprising revelation of how my belief is not essentially different from the school of greater Israel, of annexation, or from the school of status-quo that is vehemently attacked by both two-state and annexation advocates, despite the unseemly quarrels between these groups. The new perspective was gained following clicking into another headline in today’s newsletter. It is written by a settler. read more …

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The Kafka Museum Visit

November 16, 2016

As I was reading about the route Kafka used to take everyday to school accompanied by the family chef, suddenly the strains of HaTikvah was heard. It may not be much of a surprise since Kafka was known to have wanted to make aliya, the strange thing is that barely passing 8 bars, the music deviated from what I know so well. It then became apparent that this is not the Israeli national anthem, or a remix of it.

Recalling that the music of HaTikvah was adapted from some pretty pedestrian folk tune, I went to the Wikipedia page in hope of finding some confirmation that the presently playing piece was also a derivative of the same source. There, the name Smetana struck me familiar. Wasn’t that splendid hall where I listened to that underwhelming concert inside the municipal house called Smetana Hall? – It’s probably not the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK’s fault, but my insisting in going to the concert after a whole day’s hike to blame. Now as the second movement of Smetana’s symphonic poem set, Vltava, greets me again, my hypothesis is validated. For some time, I enjoyed the discovery of the hidden links between these initially unrelated dots scattered all over my trip. But it seems to be a well known fact domestically.

Now as I think of it, isn’t it most suitable to choose this piece of music for that short film of Kafka’s Prague? On one hand, the HaTikvah-like melody alludes to his Zion heart, on the other, a Czech rendition reflects his cultural identity. By the way, this is not the only occasion where the museum designers show genius choice of music. Firstly I was met with some non-trivial ambient music in the introductory part. And close to the end in the literary analysis section, some spooky metal sounds are heard accompanying Kafka’s hand injury drawings made for his insurance company, creating a creepy absurd space. I would say the museum is quite experimental sonically and visually.

They also offered scholarly and deep interpretations for Kafka’s work, which were difficult to chew. To be honest, when I read Metamorphosis, I hardly saw anything beyond the storyline. But I’ll have plenty of chances to read between the lines now that I bought a set of three books compiling Kafka’s short stories from the museum shop – almost as impressive as the Autechre EP box that I got at the live show!

On a somewhat remotely related note, the nude with arms raised (and armpit hair exposed) by Pablo Picasso actually reminded me of George Samsa’s sister at the end of Metamorphosis, stretching herself to receive the infinite generosity from the sunshine as much as she could; her parents suddenly realize that here is a full fledged young woman ready for the future. This is not to say that I finally start to whole-heartedly appreciate that drawing. Although admittedly, Catherine’s explanation helped a lot towards that end. She says naivism tries to unlearn the academic training and focuses on the essence of what one wants to convey through childish paint strokes. In this particular drawing, I indeed starts to see the innocence, youthfulness and all the signs indicating the fresh positive, instead of singling out the grotesque squiggles supposedly representing her hair and hands. We also agreed that his intentional neglect of making her face pretty and leaving the natural underarm as is were an explicit challenge to typical modern viewers such as us, who are knowingly but irresistibly conditioned to popular media dictation of what is considered to be feminine beauty.

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Porquerolles Day 6

July 19, 2015

The last day of the conference. Before 11 a.m. the lectures were all over. I wasn’t sure if I paid attention to them well. During the coffee break, I found out everybody I know was to leave the island immediately except for Ernst Jan. We went to see them off at the port in the middle of the day under the blazing hot sun. It was that laid-back kind of atmosphere that made my eyes half closed. All of a sudden, Ougustine came to hug us and went to join the line. Then I noticed the line moving and that signified the departure of my friends. I only managed to locate Elektra who called out to me, and Julie beside her. We hugged and kissed and bid farewell. It was so brief and there wasn’t any chance to say goodbye to anyone else that I hung out with. The next moment the port was empty, leaving me a bit bewildered- a feeling I had long time ago. I always find it hard to digest that friends who created and shared fond memories can just disappear from my life this easily. But I also realize for truly sociable people, it happens all the time and they don’t lament it.

Two hours later, Ernst Jan and I were sitting at Le Pelagos. After the Delft native introduced me to their rowing culture and their enormous civil engineering revolving around dikes, somehow we came to the topic of Israel’s conflict. I looked up at him when he used the word “aggression”, albeit in a careful tone as if that would irritate me. I did find it offensive as Israel never acts unprovoked (okay, minus that 1956 war). So far I had seen myself as a little ambassador of Israel to the world, ready to discuss any complex problems in an educated manner. But before I could make a statement, he said in the gentlest possible way – in a mosquito’s volume – that Farah was a refugee from Lebanon. I gasped and my mind went blank. But that was not all. Her house was destroyed when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The whole family fled to Egypt where soon afterwards there was unrest and again they had to run away. Eventually they settled down in France. And now Farah lives in Australia where she did her research. For years she could not speak to an Israeli. When she met Israelis she got so angry that she felt like punching them in the face. Only a year ago she gradually overcame this.

As the story unfolded, the images of my limited interaction with Farah came rushing through my mind. I always introduce myself first and foremost as a student from Israel because I never like to present myself as being from China. Like most, Farah verified that this most-definitely Chinese looking person is not Israeli. But why in the world did I add, in the face of a Lebanese, that I like to pretend to be Israeli, only falling short of declaring myself as a self-appointed Israeli ambassador? I somewhat perceived a tip of the iceberg of my silliness when she naturally pursued: “Why do you like to pretend to be Israeli?” There was apparent underlying meaning pointing to her distaste towards Israel. But I chose to ignore her being uncomfortable and clumsily shrugged it off by saying “It’s just fun.” Now that I came to know what kind of bitter personal history she had had, I totally regret my insensitivity. Perhaps later on we got along well: the next day she told me how her nervousness before the presentation could be manifested in her shivering voice; in the afternoons we went to beaches together; during a coffee break I offered my condolence for her stolen bikini; the last morning I think she came to sit right in front of me at breakfast. But all this is perhaps due to me not being Israeli, and/or her being more mature.

I remember that miss universe incidence where the Israeli girl still in the army service cheerfully insisted in taking a selfie together with the Lebanese girl. I sneered at the narrow-mindedness of the Lebanese when it was reported that Miss Lebanon was harshly criticized for that photo. Back then, it again proved for me that only the Arab states perceive us as the enemy, refuse to accept coexistence and perpetrate the century long hostility, whereas we don’t hate anyone and just want to make peace. So when we come across someone from the other side, we lightly go up to them believing we should make friends with them and they should NOT have a problem in making friends with us. But for them, they could not take it lightly. No matter how legitimate a reason Israel has for launching the offensive, what happened on the ground were massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and large-scale displacement of the Lebanese population. Displacement, what a neutral sounding word! But now I suddenly see the substance in this word by relating it to a real person, whom I spoke with and respect. Sometimes our simple-mindedness, innocence, mixed with insensitivity can become stupidity. How can I blame those people for not ready to befriend us?

Ernst Jan asked me to imagine myself being in Farah’s situation. But I could not. I was already saddened and I knew I could not take it to place myself in her shoes. That would be too agonizing. For all these years, I have refused to see the real pictures of any human misfortune, be it the suffering of Gazans, the stories of our fallen soldiers, or the Holocaust. Therefore I love to read history books written by serious scholars. Largely devoid of emotion, I can stand reading numbers, which I forget in a millisecond, or words like displacement, casualty and death. And after reading the books, I believe I know what happened without having to undergo mental depression. But real pictures are indeed there. Sometimes they are just suddenly before your eyes without warning. In the future, I will still hide behind the texts. But this shock lesson indeed significantly influenced me towards giving more weight to the ordinary civilian on the other side when thinking about the conflict. read more …

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A General Launches a War for Wildlife

July 22, 2014

Chapter Six of Alon Tal’s book Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. This chapter talks about the activities of the Nature Reserves Authority, mainly when Avraham Yoffe was in charge. I’m left with an impression that under his command, the new born authority secured an astounding fraction of Israeli land for reservation, albeit small and scattered. His successful campaign to stop the dirty habit of wildflower-picking remains the single legend that never repeats. Along with the anecdotes, for instance

walking into the kitchen of his host, opening the refrigerator, and pulling a leg off of a chicken without being invited,

or another, he hired two female scientists and threw out the grumbling male staffs saying

he had ‘enough balls’ already and wanted some brains,

Linked to Alon Tal's Pollution in a Promised Land in UC Press online libraryas well as Figure 13 which depicts a Yoffe in full army uniform, feeding a cute little baby herbivore (I’m guessing gazelle?) with a milk bottle, which easily reminds me of that famous picture of Ariel Sharon with a lamb slung over his shoulders – all these make me take a great liking to him.

However now, many weeks past, Claude Lanzmann’s Pourquoi Israël that I watched much earlier somehow surfaced again. And I remember there was an interview with a retired military man who turned to wildlife advocacy. I opened the DVD package and found indeed the name Abraham Yoffe there. In the film, aside from telling us about his dream of rehabilitating the biblical animals in the land of Israel [1], he also offered his opinion on the political conflicts, in which he clearly aligned himself with the school of “Greater Israel”. For Egypt, he said the Sinai

is not important to them, but important for us… It can act as a buffer zone, which is good for us, good for them and good for the world.

I can’t decide if to say he was naive or if he was intentionally blind. As regard to the Palestinian problem, he said

We should learn to live together. and I’m ready to give them all rights as Israelis.

This is of course one basic underlying belief for any one-state solution advocate. But when questioned by the director “what about the Jewish state”, pointing to the demographic problem, Yoffe said

I’m not afraid… You see when I was born in this country, the percentage between Jews and Arabs was 1 to 10… Today it’s 3 Jews to 1 Arab. So why should I be afraid?

Well I don’t really want to give an analytical comment on this bizarre statement. The point is, it is really interesting to get accounts of things and people from different places. Just as reading the Israeli environmental history gives me a unique perspective when looking at these less known but no less inspiring, exciting, heroic or heartbreaking deeds against the most familiar Israeli modern history, the association of different depictions of this person evokes a similar curious sentiment. As a result, Yoffe’s image is now more complicated in my mind than before.


 

[1]. This biodiversification effort – the Hai Bar project – is also documented in the book. It is quite a subject of controversy. On one hand it collected a lot of endangered animals, opened up a safari as a tourist attraction, on the other hand some predators were confined in small areas, and the indigenousness of some of the species were questionable.

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